Friday, June 27, 2008

Interesting Areas of Scientific Research

Recently, I was asked by JP Frantz at SF Signal to respond to an interesting question on their forum, “MIND MELD: Interesting Areas of Scientific Research”. The editors said,

“For many of us, one of the main interests of science fiction is it's use of science as part of the story. There's nothing quite like reading about a cool idea that is based on current scientific thought and then going back and finding out more. We asked our respondents this question:

Q: There is a lot of scientific research being performed across a wide array of disciplines. So much that it can be difficult to keep up with it all. What current avenue of scientific inquiry do you believe people should be paying attention to, and why?”
Head over there and read some thought provoking answers from the likes of Kathleen Ann Goonan, Nancy Kress, Mike Brotherton, Jennifer Ouellette, Kay Kenyon, and Alexis Glynn Latner.

Just to whet your appetite, here are some "clips" from a few examples of answers:

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

What Charles Darwin Didn’t Know about Sex

My husband passed this article on to me, among many other newspaper clippings—as he is wont to do—he likes to help keep me well stocked in interesting “stories” for my blog. Well, this one was so interesting and well written by the Vancouver Sun editorial staff (all nine of them, listed below) that I’m compelled to hijack it in its original form and post it here for your delicious and tantalizing pleasure:


In the world of Charles Darwin, males compete with other males to mate with females, which is why the male of the species is hard-wired to become aroused by females and developed flamboyant plumage, horns or exuberant songs and dances to court them. Females select those mates they think can best protect them from aggressors, hunt for food and pass on the best genes.

Follow the evolutionary bouncing ball and we learn that men are in competition with other men for the attention of, and opportunity to mate with, women; and that women are searching for muscular men with material resources, ones likely to produce strong, healthy, attractive offspring.

Well, forget all that. Research suggests women aren’t particularly aroused by the sculpted male body. In fact, they’d rather look at other women.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Oryx & Crake--Book Review

Margaret Atwood’s Booker Award nominee, “Oryx and Crake” is a sharp-edged, dark contemplative essay on the premise of where the myopia of greed, power and obsession with “self-image” and its outstripping of ethics and morality may take us. Replete with sordid subject matter and unlikeable but complex characters, Atwood’s gloomy post-apocalyptic tale follows the slow pace of introspection. It is a dark commentary rich with vivid, often viscerally provokative language, metaphor and symbolism.

“Oryx and Crake” is a dark “cautionary tale for a society addicted to vanity, greed and self.” Often sordid and disturbing, it depicts “an acquisitional era where everything from sex to learning is about power and ownership” (Sarah Barnett, Anglican Media). In her typical sharp-witted prose and edgy humor, Atwood “uses those rare birds, oryx and crake, like canaries in the mines,” says Victoria Bramworth of the Baltimore Sun, “to invoke a metaphor ― and warning ― for our times”.

The story begins with Jimmy, aka Snowman (as in Abominable), who lives a somnolent, disconsolate life in a post-apocalyptic world created by a worldwide biological catastrophe.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Beauty is Truth and Truth Beauty

Love makes an object beautiful—Eliseo Lagano

Ubi amor ibi oculus est (Where there is love there is vision)—Richard of St Victor

Do you recall John Keats’ enigmatic last two lines in Ode on a Grecian Urn: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty. That is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know” ?

“But what on Earth did Keats mean?” asked mathematician and author, Martin Gardner (Scientific American, April 2007). Gardner went on to quote T.S. Eliot who called the lines “meaningless” and “a serious blemish on a beautiful poem”. A rather pithy remark, I thought, considering the lines spoke of beauty. Gardner further described how great theorems and great proofs, such as “Euclid’s elegant proof of infinity of primes, have about them what Bertrand Russell described as ‘a beauty cold and austere’ akin to the beauty of great works of sculpture.”

Ian Stewart, a distinguished mathematician at the University of Warwick in England and author of Why Beauty is Truth: a History of Symmetry, suggested that symmetry lay at the heart of beauty. He concluded his book with two maxims: 1) in physics, beauty does not automatically ensure truth, but it helps; and 2) in mathematics beauty must be true—because everything false is ugly.

I really don’t think these guys get it.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Monday, June 16, 2008

What Color is Your Alien?

Apparently the vegetable kingdom in Mars, instead of having green for a dominant colour, is of a vivid blood-red tint—H.G. Wells
According to Nancy Y. Kiang (biometeorologist at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies) green aliens are so passé. Well, she may have a point. In a fascinating article in Scientific American (April, 2008), Kiang tells us that “light of any color from deep violet through the near-infrared could power photosynthesis.” For instance, the cooler type M stars (red dwarfs) are feeble and planets receive less visible light. Plants might need to be close to black in color to absorb as much light as possible. Young M stars fry planetary surfaces with ultra-violet flares, so many organisms would likely be aquatic to survive. Our sun is type G, and on Earth green generally dominates the color of living plants. Around F-stars, hotter and bluer than our sun, plants might get too much light and would need to reflect much of it, so they would tend to absorb blue light and might look green to yellow to red or violet.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Wreath of Barbs by Wumpscut

“Wreath of Barbs” is the title track of a new CD by Wumpscut, an electro-industrial project from Germany, founded in 1991 by Bavarian disc jockey Rudy Ratzinger. Electro-industrial is a musical outgrowth of the EBM and Post-industrial scene that developed in the late 1980s to the 1990s. Whereas EBM is straightforward in structure and clean production, electro-industrial is generally a deep, layered and complex sound and uses harsher beats and raspy, distorted, or digitized vocals. Electro-industrial music has increasingly attained popularity in the international club scene and in contrast to industrial rock, electro-industrial groups use comparatively little guitar music (if any). Lyrical content is often strongly influenced by dystopian subject matter; of which Wumpscut is consummate (see lyrics below, but listen to the podcast first):

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Killer Plagues: Will they wipe us out or will we co-evolve?

Since the days of the cave man, the earth has never been a Garden of Eden, but a valley of Decision where resilience is essential to survival...To grow in the midst of dangers is the fate of the human race—René Dubois, Mirage of Heath

The raging epidemic of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome has shocked the world. It is still not comprehended widely that it is a natural, almost predictable, phenomenon—Joshua Lederberg

For most of our history, viral and bacterial plagues have mystified us and caused untold human fatalities. “They have caused more death and terror than war or any other calamity,” claims Frank Ryan, M.D. and author of “Virus X: Tracking the New Killer Plagues”. We all know about the Black Death or Black Plague (commonly attributed to Bubonic Plague) caused by the bacterium, Yersinia pestis and carried by fleas on black rats. The Black Plague devastated Europe and Asia in the mid 1300s, killing an estimated 75 million people, around 1/3 to 2/3 of Europe’s population at the time.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Robert J. Sawyer's Neanderthal Parallax--Review

Robert J. Sawyer’s tenth novel, Hugo award-winning “Hominids” jump-starts a thoughtful and imaginative trilogy, “The Neanderthal Parallax”, which explores an alternate evolutionary stream where Neanderthals became the dominant intelligent species on the planet. Sawyer makes up for less than vivid prose with well-researched paleoanthropological information and theoretical physics played out by charming untraditional characters from two parallel universes.

This SF trilogy published by Tor Books consists of “Hominids”, “Humans”, and the concluding, “Hybrids”, released in September, 2003 in hard cover. Hominids won the Hugo award for best SF. The remaining two have also run as Canadian Bestsellers and were nominated for Hugos.

The trilogy explores the lives and cultures of two unique species of people, Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalis, through the premise of existing parallel universes and what might happen if they “collided”. During a quantum-computing experiment, Ponter Boddit, a Neanderthal physicist, accidently pierces the barrier separating his universe from ours, plunging him into a land both familiar and strange. Having left behind his family, a mystery, and his colleague -- accused of murder -- Ponter’s search for home forces him to navigate his way among the curious and suspicious “Gliksins” who have in his world been extinct for 40,000 years.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

The Fish Commandments

I’m an alien. I watch things… I listen…**pauses to listen to the dishwasher** {wirwirwirwir... sounds like Vinnie, my AI ship, when he’s content, in equilibrium…} I glance up from my fish and chips meal to inspect the blue-green painted wall of my friend's kitchen and wonder whether they considered it more blue or more green. I've observed that humans seldom agree on anything.

A while ago, in my role as a limnologist on this planet, I observed a dichotomy of human perception on ecosystem behavior that had me thinking of chaos theory. In a recent blog post I contrasted traditional equilibrium-driven views with more current views for ecosystem behavior (Creative Destruction—Another Paradox?). C.S. Holling’s model recognized ecosystems as non-linear, self-organizing and continually adapting through cycles of change from expansion and prosperity to creative destruction and reorganization.

Fisheries scientists are also shifting from the traditional single-species target approach to conservation and preservation in an ecosystem-based perspective. Scientists at the Western Society of Naturalists Presidential Symposium came up with their version of the “ten commandments” for ecosystem-based fisheries scientists to follow (Fisheries, May, 2007). Here they are:

Monday, June 2, 2008

Our Future Food?

It’s here now…if only we could stomach it….

“Mmmmm,” Jill uttered breathlessly, in the rapt voice of someone joyously surprised with herself. "Perfumy, tastes like salty apples."

“Like a scented candle blended with an artichoke,” added her friend, scooping out and swallowing the grayish, slightly greasy “meat”.
What ARE they eating that is so delectable, you might ask? asked... It is a 3-inch long South Asian water bug that looks uncannily like a cockroach. Ironically, as a biologist, I harbor an unreasonable aversion to that insect.

The giant water bug (Lethocerua indicus) is just one of many insects available for the tolerant palate. In fact, 1,400 species of insects are commonly eaten around the world with the practice dating back thousands of years.